How are swollen legs and feet associated with heart failure?

Jennifer H. Haythe, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Swollen legs and feet happen when the right side of the heart starts to fail, and fluid backs up into the legs and feet.
Linda Rohyans
Cardiac Rehabilitation

If you have heart failure, your legs and feet may swell. Swelling often occurs because your heart cannot pump the blood around your body effectively, so the blood backs up in your body; causing the swelling. This is similar to when a sink backs up and is not able to drain. Gravity also makes the swelling worse. It causes blood and fluid to settle in your legs and feet, especially if you stand for several hours. When your legs appear larger and your skin feels tighter, or your socks leave “imprints” on your ankles and your shoes feel tight, you could be retaining water. Here are some tips to help reduce this build-up of fluid, or “water weight.”

  • Limit the amount of salt in your diet, with the goal of 2000 mg per day. This is the most important thing you can do to reduce swelling. Salt causes your body to
    hold in fluid and it makes you thirsty.
  • Lie down or rest with your feet propped up. In this way, fluid will move from your legs and feet, back toward your heart.
  • Limit how much water you drink. If you have swelling, drink less than 2 quarts or 2 liters a day of all fluids.
  • Wear support stockings to prevent water build-up in your legs. Put the stockings on in the morning and wear them throughout the time you plan to be standing.
  • Diuretics or water pills, can help your body get rid of extra water and salt. Your doctor will adjust your medicine according to the amount of fluid you retain, your
    kidney function, and your overall health. Taking water pills may cause you to go to the bathroom more often and may interrupt your sleep at night.

Your weight is the best single measure of your body’s water status from day to day; it can show you “how full your tank is!” You will see the weight increase on the scale before you will see your legs and feet swell.

Swelling in your legs and feet can also be due to many other situations, for example:

  • Leg infection
  • Blood clot
  • Venous insufficiency (veins in the legs are unable to get blood back to the heart)
  • Varicose veins (valves in the veins are unable keep blood moving; blood pools in the veins causing them to enlarge)
  • Burns; sunburn
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Surgery to your leg or foot
  • Blockage of lymph nodes in the legs
  • Baker Cyst (fluid in the knee joint)
  • Cellulitis (bacterial infection of skin and tissues)
  • Phlebitis (inflammation of the veins)
  • Scleroderma (thickening/hardening of the skin)

So, you can see how very important it is to contact your doctor for ANY swelling!

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    Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.